Tuesday 17 February 2015

Guest Blog by Kelvin Hopkins MP


A substantial majority of voters have long taken the view that Britain’s railways should be restored to public ownership.  Privatisation has been an expensive folly and vast sums of public and fare-payers’ money are still being poured into the industry and into the pockets of franchisees, private corporate contractors and lawyers.

Sir Roy McNulty in his report commissioned by the last Labour government concluded that Britain’s railways were up to 40% more expensive to run than the publicly owned and integrated railway industries on the Continent of Europe.  These excessive costs have arisen since privatisation.

By contrast, the former, and much maligned and unfairly criticised British Rail had the highest level of productivity of any railway in Europe.  This was due in large part to the decades of under-funding by successive governments who believed the railways were in terminal decline and that the motor car was the future for personal travel.  A former railway regulator of the newly privatised industry said that British Rail had “worked miracles on a pittance” and that the railways had been handed over to the privateers “in good order”.  The Beeching cuts and a desperate lack of investment had savagely damaged our railways, but despite that the dedication of BR staff at every level had kept them functioning.

It has at last been properly recognised that the railways are a major transport mode for the future, not an historic relic.  It is time to rebuild an integrated railway industry in national public ownership, properly accountable to the electorate and to railway users through Parliament.

The emphasis on national public ownership is deliberate, because the greatest nonsense of all is that our railway services are now largely owned and operated by foreign nationalised railways, by foreign governments, so that British taxpayers and fare-payers are actually subsidizing continental taxpayers and railway passengers.

Railways are a vital national asset, but like equally vital roads they have to be funded to a significant degree by the public purse.  It is therefore illogical to contract out its operations and then use public money both to keep services running and also pay profits to these external organisations.  If the railways were commercial entities able to make profits without subsidy and were not a vital component of our national infrastructure, some kind of case for them being in the private sector might be made, at least by the Tories.  But pouring vast sums of taxpayers and fare-payers cash into the pockets of the foreign owners of our railways is simply stupid and driven only by dogma.

Despite the government’s feeble claims that privatisation has been a success, the railway infrastructure has already in effect been returned by stages to public ownership.  The disaster that was Railtrack forced Labour to establish Network Rail, and the Tory/Lib Dem coalition have recently put Network Rail’s debts on the public accounts.  The railway tracks are now in public ownership so are in effect nationalised.

The train operating franchises however are still “privatised”, although it has been explained above that they are largely in foreign public ownership.  The rolling stock is privately owned, by the so-called ROSCOS, which belong to the banks.  Rolling stock is thus leased to the train operating companies (TOCs) at exorbitant rates, another nonsense.

Transferring all the franchises to a new public railway corporation would cost nothing and indeed save large sums for the public purse.  This has been demonstrated by the East Coast Mainline franchise which has been in the public sector for several years, although now being reprivatized by the Tories.  The only cost of deprivatisation would therefore be the rolling stock, but the ROSCOS have made such profits out of the railway industry that only minimal compensation could ever be justified.

Labour should take the bull by the horns and commit to creating a publicly owned railway.  Such a promise would be sensible, economic and enormously popular with voters.  There is nothing to lose and everything to gain.


  1. In an ideal world, railways should perhaps be nationalised. But is it a priority? Nationalisation is not error-free. The best thing might be to consider each franchise on its merits as it comes up, but a wholesale upturning is not called for now.

    What is the greatest socialist transport need? A good long-distance bus service, I would say - calling in at motorway service stations and with good shared-taxi shuttles into local towns. Free bus-passes for all might be another - similar to that given to oldies at present. Meanwhile, retail fuel should be tripled in price, with the extra tax going to improve public transport.

    And dump the socialist case for HS2! Use longer trains instead. The Liverpool-Hull link is far more important, and will bring increased employment to a part of the country that needs it.

  2. One of the biggest disasters of the early 1990s was the decision of Major and the Tories to privatise the railways.

    However, for all your eloquence, Kevin, is today's Labour Party advocating that they be renationalised?

    Not that I'm aware of! In fact, I'm sure the Labour leadership would recoil in horror even at the mere suggestion of it.

    Also, it's hard to believe that Blair / Brown and New Labour would not have privatised the railways during their 13 long years in power, had the Tories not already done so.

    After all, New Labour privatised everything else.